That's not to say, by a long shot, that WVU has a deficiency in numbers, or in potential, at linebacker. However, in order to become a cohesive unit that can play all aspects of the game and fill out all four positions in West Virginia's base 3-4 defense, either some returnees will have to show improvement, or some new arrivals will need to make an immediate impact.
There's also this fact to keep in mind – WVU looks well-stocked at the inside positions (Will and Sam), but is looking for more at the outside positions (Buck and Spur) to fill a gap that has plagued the Mountaineers for a number of seasons.
UP: The inside positions have a number of proven performers and some rising youngsters that could help the Sam and Will spots be an anchor of the defense behind the front three. At the Sam, Isaiah Bruce and Doug Rigg form an excellent duo that will be counted on for great performance, while Nick Kwiatkoski, who had a stellar spring, and experienced Jared Barber return at the Will. Three of the four have starting chops, and they could end up as one of the strengths of the defense, especially against the run.
The Buck position never reached its potential last year as a havoc-creator, but all three players coming out of the spring have the ability to contribute. Dozie Ezemma (speed) Garret Hope (intensity and hitting) and Tyler Anderson (run stuffer) have qualities that, when fielded in the right situations, could make the spot solid. Opposite, at the Spur, Wes Tonkery, who missed some contact work in the spring, and incoming freshman Hodari Christian could provide a similar combination.
That's not all to draw from at linebacker, either. Shaq Petteway, who has bounced around a bit but seems more suited for a linebacker spot, and redshirt freshman Sean Walters also have the talent to help. Add in Jewone Snow, who also missed some of the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery, and there's a deep pool of contenders for playing time. In just looking at the raw numbers, the expectation is that there are enough bodies, and enough talent, to field at least a solid group.
DOWN: The major concern at all spots across the second level? Speed. West Virginia's inside backers struggled in pass coverage last year, especially against teams that used inside receivers or tight ends on deep routes. Getting the proper depth on drops was a problem, and that will continue to be tested by opposing offenses until it's corrected. Some of the problems may have lain in confusion with the defensive scheme – an issue we'll discuss next.
Just as West Virginia is at defensive end, the Mountaineers are hoping for help in the form of speed and pass-rushing ability from newcomers. Christian, who was on campus through spring drills, has some, as does Petteway, but all eyes are on D'Vante Henry and Brandon Golson to be the missing links at the outside backer spots. The good news is that both are junior college players, and both are hopefully more mature and savvy, but the bad news is that Golson hasn't enrolled yet. He's reportedly in the process of getting his legal issue straightened out, but until he gets on campus it's tough to count him as a potential solution to WVU's speed issues. It's also difficult to pin a lot of hopes on newcomers, even juco performers. For every Bruce Irvin, there are a dozen who never pan out.
Either way, West Virginia is again looking for ways to get pressure on quarterbacks from the second level (or from the end spots when the Mountaineers put the Buck on the line of scrimmage in passing situations). Henry and Golson are key in that regard, as WVU's outside 'backers weren't able to do that in 2012. And unlike the interior defensive line, which can create problems by forcing offensive linemen back in the quarterback's face, a blitzing linebacker needs to get home to do damage, because when he's rushing there are fewer teammates downfield to help in pass coverage. If the Mountaineers can't get that this year, it's going to be another tough season against the pass.
KEY ITEMS: It's tempting to make the pass rushing and hope for newcomers as the key item for the 'backers, and it wouldn't be wrong. But there's one item that probably stands out more for this group: system comprehension.
The 2012 West Virginia defense was bad for any number of reasons, but one of those was definitely the lack of understanding and execution of the scheme. Say what you will about its suitability, but even a cursory view of game video reveals a number of false steps and hesitation among West Virginia's linebackers. In today's game, and especially in the speed game of the Big 12, defenses are already at enough of a disadvantage. When there's hesitation, when a player isn't quite sure where to go, or takes a false step in the wrong direction, it's play over. A first down or a big gain is often the case.
To correct that, West Virginia's linebackers have to be confident in their approach. At the snap, they have to make the right read, and then react quickly and decisively. The challenge, of course, is that this is WVU's third defensive scheme in the last three years. Can veterans assimilate it in one spring and one fall? Can newcomers, without the veterans to lean on, learn things quickly? (It's not that the vets will be unwilling to help, but there's no denying that they will still be working on their own assimilation.)
Achieve this task, and West Virginia's linebackers can be good enough to win with in the Big 12. But if confusion and uncertainty reign, holes on the second level of the Mountaineer defense will again be exploited by league foes.